Drones Fall 2015

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Drones, also known as unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV), are remotely controlled aircraft - there is no human pilot. They can also navigate autonomously or beyond the line of sight [1]. Drones’ initial uses were mainly for military and hobbyist purposes. Recent technological developments and governmental regulation have paved the way for commercial drone usage.

This wiki will continue to use the term “drones” as it is the most publicly accepted term and will focus on commercial drone usage.


What are Drones?

A UAV is defined as “powered, aerial vehicle that does not carry a human operator, uses aerodynamic forces to provide vehicle lift, can fly autonomously or be piloted remotely, can be expendable or recoverable, and can carry a lethal or nonlethal payload. Ballistic or semi ballistic vehicles, cruise missiles, and artillery projectiles are not considered unmanned aerial vehicles” by the US Department of Defense [2].

Drones can be categorized into the following three categories based on their purposes - military, commercial, and recreational. Regulations, typical sizes, and uses vary between the three distinctions.

In addition to UAV, drones are synonymous with the following:

  • Unmanned aircraft systems (UAS)
  • Remotely piloted aerial vehicle (RPAV)
  • Quad-copter/quadrocopter: contains four propellers

The definition of drones is often confused with missiles, as they are both remotely controlled aircraft. However, a key distinction is that missiles are not reusable and are used exclusively for lethal purposes.

Military Usage

Military Drones

Military drones are typically used for surveillance and attacks by the government. They provide the ability to execute on military strategy without compromising the lives of pilots, thus allowing for riskier operations. There were 7,494 drones in the US military, making up 40% of the US military air fleet as of 2012[3].

Air strikes by drones are becoming more common - 51 American drone strikes were issued between 2004 and 2009, and 330 American drone strikes were issued in the following five years until 2013 [4]. These drones are controlled remotely at an airbase within the United States, whose signals are sent to a satellite and then relayed back to the drones that are in areas of conflict [5].

As mentioned above, for the purpose of this Wiki, Military Drones will not be analyzed in our evaluation of UAVs.

Recreational Usage

Camera Mounted onto Drone

Drones provide a more accessible means to aerial photography. In addition to being more cost effective, a significant advantage of drone-enabled photography over traditional methods, such as helicopter and parachuting, is that it allows maneuvering in difficult-to-reach areas. Examples include following moving trains and flying over live volcanoes.

Aerial View of Volcano from Drone

Cameras are mounted to the drones and are controlled remotely. Depending on the configuration, there may be two separate controllers for the drone and for the camera. The separate motors provide even greater flexibility for angles.

The price of a consumer drone ranges from $30 for a micro-sized model to upwards of $2000 for a premium camera-mounted model. DJI, a leader in consumer drone technology, is projected to become the first company to make a billion dollars in consumer drone sales[6]. Its premium product line Phantom is the gold-standard of consumer drones and the company is often considered the "Apple of Drones" [7].

DJI Phantom 3

Commercial Usage


There are currently drones that help farmers with crop monitoring. Drones are equipped with different sensors, such as visual imagery, thermal detection, multi-spectral and LiDar views, that all differently aid in the success of agriculture. For example, visual imagery allows farmers to efficiently monitor and survey their farmland. Furthermore, it has multi-spectral sensors allowing farmers to detect and remove diseases on the plants. Drones can also be equipped with a precision spray of pesticides opposed to spraying the entire field. This leads to reduced airborne pesticides [8]. Data gathered from these drones are compatible with open source platforms that allow farmers to better manipulate information to make better decisions [9].

Search and Rescue

It has been adopted by law enforcement across the country where Drones are used to scan an area inch by inch. They also act as vehicles used to survey and act in dangerous situations. It can be used to easily spot people and to scope out the hazardous area. With the advanced technology, micro drones can act as disaster monitoring. Instead of sending in firefighters to enter danger zones to analyze the situation, drone can fulfill this role [10]. With the payload technology, they are capable of measuring gas levels where smoke composition is communicated to the firefighting teams.


As an extension of search and rescue, drones are nearing the capability of reaching a scene of a drowning victim. Commonly, it takes a life-guard approximately 90 seconds to get to a drowning civilian who is 75 meters from the beach. They also act as delivery vehicles of emergency equipment such as automatic defibrillators and life preservers to emergency locations. The prototype is currently in the process of being tested with landing gears to sustain the weight of a person in order to act as a vehicle that pulls someone out of the water [11].

Journalism and New Stories

Instead of flying large helicopters to capture the aerial shots of high speed car chases, drones can do just that. They are also equipped to go into smaller areas unlike manned aircraft. However, one barrier news organizations will face are the bans issued by the FAA prohibiting drone use for news because this constitutes a 'business purpose' [12].

Film and Photography

The American alternative rock band OK Go is famous for their creative music videos. Their 2014 music video for "I Won't Let You Down" displays highly-coordinated choreography involving over 2,000 dancers and is filmed in one continuous shot using a drone. The drone follows the band on a ground level and eventually flies high enough to capture all 2,000 dancers. The viral video has over 25,000,000 views on YouTube and has won several accolades including Best Choreography from MTV and X-Factor from NYC Drone Film Festival[1].

Power and Utilities

Drone Surveying a Powerline

The use of drones has become widely recognized in the power and utilities industries, specifically for surveying. Working with drones has proven to increase worker safety by giving workers the ability to inspect hard-to-reach places or react quicker to emergency situations. Furthermore, drones can drastically cut cost in terms of cost savings, as these drones are fairly inexpensive and time efficient. Lastly, companies can utilize emerging drone technology to improve data collection with aerial mapping, monitoring and photogrammetry for better analysis and decision making [2].


Ariel Imagery Detecting Corrosion

The construction industry has looked to new technology to help them better execute large scale projects. Companies that have adopted drone technology into their construction projects have gained a competitive edge. With successfully integrating this technology into processes, companies are able to use their equipment and resources more efficiently, communicate better using accurate data and mapping, and allows them to better measure their progress against their timeline. Furthermore, more projects are being completed on-time and on budget, with a much better safety record [3]. A specific example of how drone technology improves construction processes is the ability to quickly monitor and scan large concrete structures to pinpoint hard-to-spot structural problems such as corrosion.

Drone technology has mainly helped construction in the form of gathering information about an environment however the weakness is the payload capacity where there is a limit to the amount of material they can move around. Looking into the future, robotics professionals from around the world are coming together to work on Aerial Robotics Cooperative Assembly System (ARCAS) project which they are looking into robotic flight and how to use UAVs to build real structures. Although this technology is five to ten years away, drones may spawn a new niche in construction specifically where labor is expensive or where workers cannot go [3].

Laws and Regulations

FAA Regulations

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), the governing body for airspace safety in the United States, has established a set of regulations this year (2015) that allow companies to begin operating drones for commercial purposes. The industries with the most applications this year include real-estate, aerial inspection, agriculture, and general photography. Companies are required to apply for a license for each drone they intend to operate and must meet specific requirements.

High Level Requirements

Operation [4]

  1. Drone must be within line of sight
  2. Drone must be controlled by an operator at all times
  3. Pilot can control at most most one drone at a time
  4. Drone must be operated during the day time only
  5. Drone must not fly above 500 feet
  6. Drone must not fly faster than 100 MPH


  1. Drone must be registered with the FAA for commercial usage
  2. Drone must be registered with FAA for recreational usage
  3. Operator must be at least 17 years old
  4. Operator must have a valid license for UAV operation

Transport Canada Regulations

Regulations set-out by Transport Canada are split into two user categories: 'UAV for work and research' and 'recreational UAV use.' As an overarching law for all users, Drones are prohibited from being flown closer than 150 meters from buildings, animals, structures or vehicles; cannot be closer than 9km from airport, heliport, or Aerodromes. Rules are separated into 2 classes-- Drones weighing 2kg or less and those that weigh between 2.1 kg and 25 kg. With the former category, safety conditions must be met but the permission to fly is not necessary. The latter category also doesn’t require permission but a notification to Transport Canada must be provided via a submission form. When flying UAVs for commercial purposes of aircraft weighing greater than 25 kg, it is required to hold a Special Flight Operations Certificate that permits the use of a UAV.

For recreational purposes, no permission is required if the aircraft weighs in at 35kg or less and is solely intended for recreational use. However, Transport Canada advises these users to adhere to the safety guidelines. Common rules that must be followed are that aircraft should only be operated during daylight and under optimal weather conditions. Another guideline is that aircraft must be flown in the operator's line of sight. Using and on-board camera, monitor or smartphone does not suffice as being in line-of-sight. Finally, the privacy of others should not be infringed upon. UAV operators should avoid flying in or over private properties, taking photos or videos without permission.

For more detailed UAV guidelines by Transport Canada, please click here.

Necessary Safeguards to Input in Drones

Core safeguards and technology that is becoming mandatory in drones are geo-fencing and "sense and avoid" technology. As equipped in the DJI drones that Amazon is currently using, there is a geo-fencing technology that comes installed in these aircraft. Having this technology keeps the drone from flying in or even taking off into locations that have security or safety concerns. DJI's phantom firmware software uses a GPS database to locate. The function of a flight limitation system prevents the aircraft from flying in restricted areas used to keep drones from flying beyond 400 feet above ground and near airports. There are 5 mile and 8 mile zones that are cordoned off around safety zones using the GPS database. If the Drone is within 1.5 miles of this zone, it will not take off [5]. An additional safeguard found in drones is the 'Sense and Avoid' Technology. Like the technology equipped in Amazon Drones, sense and avoid technology allow Drones to identify obstacles and immediately avoid collisions [6].


Crashing Drones

One of the largest and most occurring controversies about use of drones are users not being able to control them properly, eventually leading them to crash on people below. A recent incident in September 2015 has left a 11-month old baby cut and bruised [7], while there are many incidents of UAV crashing where large amounts of people were located, such as the 2015 US Open [8]. As of November 2015, there has been at least 80 reports and open investigations in the US alone of crashing drones [9]. A large worry to the FAA and the public is the recklessness of users and this technology forcing more to push for more regulation. Manufactures are developing “geo-fencing” technology to combat drones from flying over sensitive areas however this does not fully protect people below, such as walking along the sidewalk.

Increase in Criminal and Terrorist Activity

Drones technology has opened up more opportunities for criminal activity and terrorism. It is often difficult to even detect and stop UAVs. A recent concerning video when viral after a 18-year old boy attached a rigged handgun to this drone that has caught the attention of the FAA as well as the public. This has stirred a debate on the dangers and use of drones. Furthermore, according to the DEA, drones have been a popular means to transporting drugs across the border [1]. Currently, Homeland Security has expressed its concerns that UAVs could be used for terrorist attacks. There is a growing threat that drones could carry explosives and weapons and not even be detected. Also, drones are also notorious for spying, as there have been many incidents of UAVs around the White House and many other Federal areas [2].

Privacy Issues

Many recreational drone have cameras attached to them, which raises a growing concern of privacy. However without, much law and regulation, to what extent is a “peeping” drone invading an individual's privacy? With drones getting smaller and more sophisticated, images and videos can be taken outside a person's window without them even knowing.

A controversial case has allowed a man to be cleared of all charges when he shot down a drone that was flying over his property. The man claimed the drone was peeping on his daughters sunbathing in the backyard, however the video feed only showed a beautiful sunset. Although the man illegally fired a gun within city limits, all charges were dropped because the judge believed his privacy was violated [3]. Cases such as these leave a grey area in terms of ownership of airspace and what is the “reasonable expectation of privacy” when it comes to UAVs.

As drones are already being in use by law enforcement for the use of surveillance, there are no privacy of transparency measures that are exist in drone laws. Drones have the ability to loiter overhead for long periods of time as well as be equipped with surveillance hardware. Law enforcement are already equipping drones with live-feed video cameras, infrared cameras, heat sensors, and radar that also have the potential to intercept texts and phone calls. Police can used drones to spy on citizens without warrant or legal processes which is extremely concerning for the public [4].

Animal Invasion

As much as we innovate new technology, we must remember that we are not the only ones living on this planet. We are sharing the land with wild animals are they do not seem to happy with drones taking up their airspace. Specifically, as drones invade the airspace of birds, it has resulted in numerous number of crashes that harm both the animal and people below. Furthermore, drones also have the potential of invading nesting or sensitive habitats [1]. As companies such as Amazon that are trying to experiment with drone delivery, how can they prevent birds from attacking them or invading their skies?

Future Trends of Drones

Amazon Prime Air 2013
Amazon Prime Air 2015

Future Drone Regulation

In order for mass and autonomous drone operation to be viable, a control system needs to be in place to manage the traffic and avoid collisions. NASA hosted the first Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) Traffic Management Convention on July 2015 to demonstrate the latest developments in low-altitude airspace management for drones.

The infrastructure will be expected to address safety concerns which include collisions, weather, interactions with other flying objects (manned and autonomous aircraft, animals). NASA proposes two types of management systems which serve different purposes: portable and persistent [2].

  • Portable: temporary air traffic management for search and rescue, and surveying operations
  • Persistent: permanent air traffic management for communication, surveillance, and delivery of packages

The system, Unmanned Aerial Systems Traffic Management (UTM), facilitates communication between drones, enforces “geo-fences” (airspace boundaries), drone authentication, trajectory management (flight planning), and autonomous drone control. The UTM is development by NASA in conjunction with policy makers (FAA) and technology groups (corporate and academic) to have a fully functional UTM system within five years by 2020.


Amazon's version of an air traffic proposal consists of a multi-tiered sky highway, where Amazon Air drones will be restricted to flying in the green zone which is above 200 ft and below 400 ft (refer to image). Beyond 400ft is the no-fly zone where manned air-crafts are designated. In the green zone Drones will have the ability to communicate with other air-crafts. In Amazon’s vision, there will be a central command and control network [3]. It identifies the drone's exact position, and share this information with the other vehicles connected to the network. In addition to this there will be vehicle to vehicle communication. The air traffic control system would link drones with traditional aircraft. For example if a helicopter needed to fly flow to attend to an emergency, it could communicate with command and control to warn drones in the area creating a geo-fenced no-fly zone.

Amazon Air Prime

The next emerging trend is the use of drone delivery used to replace couriers. Amazon along with other Big Box retailers like Wal-Mart plan to have their goods delivered by autonomous quadcopters. The start of 30 minute Prime Air deliveries proposes that packages under 5 lbs will be eligible for '30 minute Prime Delivery' for customers within a 16 km radius of an Amazon fulfillment centre [4]. As safety will be a major concern, Amazon has equipped the drones with sophisticated software and technology to prevent disruption to manned aircraft (see section: #Necessary Safeguards to Input in Drones). As some may still be opposed to this idea as drones are only capable of carrying up to 5lb, it is a cost-effective option for Amazon as 86% of all orders weigh less than 5 lbs [5]. Consequently, there are also concerns surrounding the protection, weather and battery life [6]. Having drones deliver packages exposes these goods to an additional avenue of theft, potentially leading to liability issues for Amazon. As these UAVs are flying through the air, they will need to be weatherproof as they may experience flight during torrential rain, windstorms etc. Finally, drones need to be checked regularly to ensure full battery life before delivery.

Virtual Reality (VR) and Drones

Two popular new technologies that are drastically growing are virtual reality and drones, however most virtual reality and drone content today is pre-made or pre-recorded. With the growing popularity of live-streaming, imagine the possibilities of virtual reality, with the freedom of drones, mixed with a live-feed. This opens up the “future” of Virtual Tourism and Pro Sports.

Virtual Tourism

Tourism will always been an amazing experience but some individuals do not have the resources or physical capabilities. Currently, organizations such as Destination British Columbia have created 3D adventures with the help of VR and drones to help promote the destination to tourists. It allows consumers to experience BC in a new way, that has not been possible before. The video is available on their website, and consumers are able to download them and explore BC right in their own homes. This not only encourages visitation, but allows those who cannot travel the opportunity to experience a new travel perspective.

Virtual tourism is still in the works, as researchers are developing VR visors that can detect head movements to control a UAV for a real-time live stream without any limitations. The downside of virtual tourism is not getting the full experience of travelling. You will not be able to meeting locals or sample food and there are many regulations to where drones can fly. However VR and drones will allow travelling to be more accessible than ever. A new industry of tourism is emerging, and just another way of being able to see the world.

Pro Sports

VR and drones are making a surprising appearance in professional sports. Overall goals to incorporate this new technology are to enhance fan experience, while also giving athletes a competitive edge. Having games available through VR will allow masses to join in the experience of a sports game without worrying about the physical capacity of the venue.

Rather than giving fans just another camera view, companies are trying to create a whole new medium. Because the idea of watching through VR goggles takes away from the live experience, the idea is to create a whole new immersive virtual experience that enables fans to socialize with other fans, enjoying a whole new viewing perspective with integrated 3D data and RFID data [1]. Rather than trying to replace live experiences, it aims to bring a new medium for those who may not be able to physically attend.

The use of VR and Drones have been frequently used in NFL and racing. The NFL has been one of the first pro sports to start adopting VR and drones as a technique to help players improve. Drones are able to capture and record a 360-view of the field, then players use VR to simulate the plays to understand and execute team plays for better performance. Currently, at least six NFL teams and seven college teams are using this technique [2]. Furthermore, footage has been used to find flaws in player performance, and use different perspectives which helps to better analyze plays. Not only are athletes using this technique, on-field officials have been introduced to this technique to help them train for real live games. Similar to the NFL, NASCAR have been using virtual live stream races, and giving it to racers to simulate a real life experience of racing.

It is definite that VR and drones are helping change the way we play and view pro sports, however it has also created an start of a new sport, VR drone racing. Hobbyists from France created the first race. As it quickly gained popularity in the United Kingdom and the United States, drone racing is now being adopted worldwide. Hobbyists and volunteers have put on “underground” drone-racing events that has sparked social interaction and a strong community. These races are far from being mainstream, however more sponsored events are being held as hobbyists are able to fully immersive in their flights which has caused an addiction to the sport. Furthermore, newly innovated Cloudlight FPV app has allowed users to control their drones through the VR One headsets [1]. Not only is this popular with drone racing enthusiasts, but Cloudlight FPV is targeting commercial uses for its app. For instance, the construction industry where the client wants daily reports on its projects, they can virtually view the site however and whenever they want.

Security and Surveillance

Introducing Drones into the world has large impacts on the society, environment and the commercial world. It is currently changing the way surveillance is conducted. There are three general areas that it can change surveillance which are the following: specific attributes, payload technologies and its collection of personal information. UAV acts as a powerful surveillance tool where surveillance can now be conducted inconspicuously, cheap, efficient, persistent and agile. A key difference resides with manned and unmanned surveillance aircraft. Manned aircraft CCTV cameras differs from UAVs as they have mobile aspects allowing them to be more far reaching--they are fixed to a specific location and can stay aloft and undetected for days [2]. Conversely, this covert form of surveillance raises privacy concerns. The technology is advancing so rapidly that bio metric technologies can transform the nature of surveillance. They can imitate naturally occurring animals or plants (commonly birds and insects).

Due to the small size and range of flight, these drones can be configured with a range of payload technology capabilities. Now that surveillance technology is reducing in size, it can also increase is power and its range of activities. It has capabilities of capturing a wide range of detail from unique vantage points. Some have the ability to capture data from great distances and through walls with a fine level of detail-- for example capturing an image of a person's face from miles away [3]. Again this raises privacy implications which will differ for high-powered cameras vs. low powered ones.

UAVs have are transformative in manner in that they have better abilities to conduct surveillance and police public areas. The sophisticated ability of drones allows it can capture fine levels of detail such as recording the route a car is traveling, the speed of a vehicle and even observe movements of individual pedestrians [4]. The information it collects has a high-level of detail in high quality and reveals precise images of observed locations. These drones possess both an automated and interconnected nature. Given level of information collected by UAVs, these advances could improve the law enforcement landscape by utilizing analytics collected by the drones to assist in predicting and pre-empting crime even before it is about to occur. Overall, these capabilities can provide and increase safety on a large scale.

Drone as a Service

Gofor is a US-based startup that is in the conceptual stages of providing on-demand drones as a service. Its conceptual demo includes features such as location scouting, speed trap detection, parking spot finding and reserving, and detection of unsafe areas. The ability to summon a drone using an app has it dubbed as the “uber of drones” [1]. The design of this service is centered around usability for consumers who are not familiar with drone technology.

Drones and the Sharing Economy

Sam Lessin, Partner at Slow Ventures Capital and former VP of Product at Facebook, discussed significantly reducing ownership of occasionally-used household objects and have them rented or shared instead [2]. Objects such as a hot glue gun or a drill would be stored in storage units and could be delivered on-demand via drone. Owners could share or rent them out for a small fee. It scales on the current start-up NeighborGoods, a platform for peer-to-peer sharing and borrowing of objects [3]. Its limitation is the requirement for proximity as commuting to retrieve and return an object is a significant cost. Drones would remove that cost almost entirely by automating that part of the process.

Internet and Drones

Google and Facebook both have initiatives that provide internet access to areas that do not have the proper infrastructure to support it. About two thirds of the world’s population does not have access to internet [4]. Google’s Project Loon and Facebook’s Internet.org attempt to connect these areas to the internet by deploying solar-powered drones that can sustain flight for months at a time.

Project Loon began in 2011 and leveraged hot-air balloons. Its first pilot test was in New Zealand’s South Island in June 2013. The project aims to provide connectivity in the southern hemisphere [5]. In April 2014, Google acquired Titan Aerospace, a drone developer and manufacturer [6]. Titan Aerospace was a highly sought-after company in which Facebook was also in talks of acquiring the company.

Internet.org is a non-profit partnership between Facebook and several tech companies. Their very first launch was in July 2014 in Zimbabwe. The initiative initially faced net neutrality criticism as it only provided internet access to a select number of website, determined by Facebook. In May 2015, Internet.org became open to any website that met the necessary criteria[7][8].


  1. http://gizmodo.com/these-on-demand-drones-are-just-a-concept-but-they-stil-1560744298
  2. http://techcrunch.com/2013/12/02/nirvana-brought-to-you-by-robots/
  3. http://neighborgoods.net/faq
  4. https://www.google.com/loon/
  5. https://www.google.com/loon/where/
  6. http://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2014-04-14/google-acquires-drone-maker-titan-aerospace-to-spread-web
  7. http://techcrunch.com/2015/05/04/facebooks-internet-org-project-is-now-a-platform/
  8. https://developers.facebook.com/docs/internet-org/how-to-submit
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